Despite his will, Jim Harbaugh was stuck.
By most appearances, Alex Smith had become elite, just as Harbaugh had said he would. He was #1 in completion percentage, #2 in yards per throw, #3 in quarterback rating. And not entirely coincidentally, the Niners had continued to win.
And yet, by a single crucial measure, Alex Smith had simply failed.
A deep, explosive passing-game. These days, it's the key to success. Sure, we'd almost reached the Super Bowl without one. But "almost" doesn't cut it. To take the next step, we had to improve. To take the next step, we had to have it.
Smith was given all the tools. A full preseason as the unquestioned starter. A second year in Harbaugh's scheme. A fleet of new and dangerous toys. And yet it simply wasn't there.
You like statistics? I'll give you some. In 2011, Smith went deep—more than 15 yards downfield—with 17% of his throws. This year, that percentage has dropped
—to 13.8. Despite a near-total organizational commitment to increasing our offensive aggressiveness, there's no QB less aggressive than Smith.
Having no choice but to look elsewhere for explosive potential, Harbaugh had given token appearances to Colin Kaepernick, athletically freakish but wholly unproven. Yet this was too disruptive for Smith, so Harbaugh had retreated, into a dilemma he couldn't escape.
Smith was playing too well to be benched. And, of course, the Niners were winning. But Smith wasn't providing the missing piece. Kaepernick might provide that piece, but perhaps at the cost of efficiency, and thus perhaps at the cost of winning.
coach, this would be tough. To a coach as crazily high-strung as Harbaugh, it was almost heartstopping.
Yet he was about to be let off the hook.
After Smith sustained his concussion, Kaepernick's relief appearance didn't exactly quiet the issue. True, he didn't seem ready to start; but he showed enough, especially late, to keep the dilemma alive. If he played okay after coming in cold, how would he do if he knew he would start?
As the week progressed, it seemed that Smith was on track to return, infusing in me that typical mix, equal parts relief and dread. There's comfort, of course, in the devil you know. And once again, the guy seems to win. But his timid efficiency is more than just soul-drainingly dull. It's also likely a playoff loser, and thus, in the end, a season's waste.
Likewise, the late announcement that Smith wasn't cleared—that Kaepernick would get his first start—produced its own emotional mix. Clearly there was a dash of fear. An important game, on Monday night, against the league's most opportunistic D? Quite arguably, no first-starter had ever drawn a tougher assignment. Yet the guy is just so damn exciting, he reminds you why you love this game.
Most importantly, though, he would answer the question. Never mind the tough conditions. If he went out and laid an egg, Harbaugh would know to stick with Smith. For better or worse, Smith would be his only option. But if Kaepernick played efficiently, while adding that explosiveness—especially
under those tough conditions—well, Harbaugh would know what to do then too.
Kaepernick was astonishing. With the Bears expecting timidity—how often is a team more
aggressive with its backup
QB?—Kaepernick came out firing. He stood tall in the pocket, he went through his progressions, he extended plays without giving up. He threw strikes with zip and touch. And best of all, he threw deep
, even into the tightest windows. (In fact, Kaepernick has gone deep with 26.5% of his throws; if he qualified, that would rank him third.) His arm was so deadly that he didn't even need to use his equally-deadly running skills. And he didn't make a single mistake, finishing with a rating north of 130.
As it often does, the offensive energy spread to our D, which simply overwhelmed the Bears. Aldon Smith went nuts
—mostly from the D-line, I'd point out—and the Bears' morale dissolved immediately.
By the time Kaepernick threw for his second score, early in the second half, it was 27-zip. And Harbaugh had his solution at last.
Asked the obvious question, Harbaugh said he'd go with the "hot hand." This, of course, is not what you say when you've got unshakable faith in your starter. (Immediately regretting his unusual candor, he lamely asserted that both
QBs have got "hot hands," but the cat was already out of that bag.) Sure, we know that backups often make strong first-impressions that they're unable to sustain. But though he might not play like this
every week—future opponents will see him coming—this isn't some low-rent flash in the pan, the second coming of Troy Smith. This, again, is Harbaugh's choice, doing what he was drafted to do: giving life to Harbaugh's nearly violent aggression. It was only a matter of when he'd be ready. And Monday proved he's ready now.
And now that he's ready, there isn't a viable case for Smith. Your only argument is that he's a "winner," with those staggering efficiency stats. But don't you see? Any
competent pro QB should complete 70% of his passes, for eight yards per, when all he throws are eight-yard passes. That doesn't make him a "winner"; it makes him a guy who happens to win
—at least until playoff time, of course, when we'd once again be playing one-handed, with the same, sad, sorry result.
Kaepernick reminded us of what real quarterbacking is. It's efficient, sure, but it's so much more. It maximizes every snap. It senses opportunity, and then exploits it. It vitalizes one team and intimidates the other. It's absolutely thrilling
, especially after a decade away.
And it can truly win it all.
By: matt h
Date: December 4, 2012 at 3:15 PM
Comment: Sometimes explosives blow up in your face and make you look stupid.
By: Big M
Date: November 27, 2012 at 6:48 AM
Comment: Jeff -
I think you've overstated a lot of Smith's "shortcomings." I really like Kaep, and he's probably going to be significantly better than Smith one day, but his impact on the offense has been overstated. If you subtract the contribution of the defense, New Orleans outscored us 21-17 and would have headed into the half with a one or two possession lead.
Your criticism of Smith needing a player to be "wide open" compared to Kaep is off-base. I don't think you understand how a QB goes through his progressions. Defenses aren't just always running man - they usually play zone, so the reads are based off of the drops of the defensive players, not by reading the routes. Smith simply reads the defenses extremely well and executes as he's coached. That's not to say Kaep doesn't read well, but he doesn't read as well as Smith and relies on his ability far more often. As we've seen - his ability to improvise is pretty impressive, but that won't cut it in the playoffs. Turnovers are a HUGE deal in tight games. As much as it pains some of the fans, a punt is FAR better than an interception. Kaep was lucky he had a WR as savvy as Moss or else he'd have thrown a pick six Sunday.
Date: November 26, 2012 at 3:05 PM
Comment: ?! If you have a q.b. who throws comparable to the mannings or rodgers why is the coaching staff using him as a halfback or fullback? He has all the great q.b. qualities and is a winner. What up with the coaches who are using kap as a running back. He is by far the best chance to bring in number 6 so please stop it. maybe a background check is necessary. where is this bizarre thinking coming from. the packers don't use rodgers as a running back nor do the Giants or Broncos risk their best chance to win by using the Mannings as fullbacks. By the way how is Scott Tolzien, he is our second best chance. I am not the first to say it. A.S. continues to be a scary ride. Look what he did (didn't do) in the NFC championship game. Even if he was part of an outstanding team that took us to the S.B. I would have to take long odds that we would be 6-0 after that S.B. Stop using Kap the best Q.B. as a running back. You might have a q.b. controversy about a.s. and scott tolzien. I wish A.S. the best. But it gives me the willies when the niners are in
a must-win situation or up against a quality football team.
Date: November 25, 2012 at 7:08 PM
Comment: Good article. Not sure where I stand, but since you presented most of my pro-Colin arguments, here are my pro-Smith ones.
Smith knows the offense better. Colin got caught up in some near-delay of game penalties due to confusion. He may not be able to execute some of the crazier shifts and tricks that a Smith-led offense could, which has been a major strength.
He is almost certainly more interception prone, as evidenced by that errant snap related pick. By how much, nobody knows yet, but that wasn't great decision making on his part.
Smith is clutch, and unshakable by pressure. We haven't seen whether Kaep will force throws when a game isn't going his way. What happens when he's down 3 scores at halftime? Does he remain cucumber-esque? I guess we'll see.
Lastly, starting Smith and then bringing Kaep in provided an element of diversity. Under what circumstances would we put Smith in for diversity? Unless we wanna do some crazy s*** with 2 QBs on the field at once.... Hey, that's not a bad idea.........
Date: November 25, 2012 at 9:27 AM
Comment: On the contrary I'm always glad to see the Niners go to the Super Bowl but if they go I want to see them win. It's the one thing that separates them from all of the other teams with multiple titles, they have never lost when they've gone. I'm not sure they were good enough to win last year so I'm not too bent out of shape about their not going. There is no doubt Kaepernick is the future and has more upside talent-wise but at this juncture I would have been happier staying with Smith's experience.
Date: November 25, 2012 at 7:28 AM
Comment: "youre wrong, stupid"... fantastic analysis, thats the stuff that wins debates...
Anyway, looks like the future officially starts now! Looking for a big day from kaep, davis, crab and company... then a revenge game next week. Its as if all the stars just aligned!
Date: November 24, 2012 at 11:15 PM
Comment: Youre wrong, stupid.
Date: November 24, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Comment: About what I would expect from you. First your title insults all of the readers who don't agree with you about Smith (I'm sure you'll argue its a homage to James Carville but it isn't). And then you spout the same nonsense that has been the plague of Niner fans as long as I can remember. It's not enough just to win, you have to win with style. It really is pathetic.
Date: November 24, 2012 at 10:08 AM
Comment: great article Jeff, the time is now and i cant wait for the saints. some argue it would be stupid to insert Kaep now in front of a "hostile" NOs crowd on the road. I wld argue the timing is perfect. This saints team moves the ball and scores points and we need a gunslinger like Kaep to give our offense the best chance to go punch for punch, while giving our D confidence that it can still be aggressive. Is Kaep supposed to just play home games? The biggest thing to me that stood out was Davis. We have heard for a month now that teams are playing these exotic Ds against him and double/triple covering him. That he is never open. Well maybe open to smith is a guy without a defender within 8 yards of him cuz Kaep didnt have any problem finding him. Kaep gives guys chances and when he rips up the saints' historically bad D the decision will become that much more obvious!
By: Gary Mialocq
Date: November 23, 2012 at 7:37 PM
Comment: Great article. We haven't seen that kind of passing since the days of Joe and Steve.
Date: November 23, 2012 at 6:28 PM
Comment: Smith, 19-5 as a starter. 25 of 27 last 2 games. Finally coached and gets us to the NFC Champ game. What does he have to do to prove himself? Again, 1 great game... Like the guy... But 1 game. Smith has earned the spot. It's his to lose.
Date: November 23, 2012 at 12:04 PM
Comment: Hurray for edd and andrew. I was also an a.s. fan waiting for the maestro to emerge, instead I heard an endless stream of excuses. The NFC championship game last year was unforgivable, there was no maestro only 5 yard dump-offs. Perhaps the maestro kap has arrived. If not lets find him. we know its not a.s. I know I don't want to hear a ton of excuses, this is supposed to be an entertaining sport. The 5 yard dump-offs aren't very exciting to me. They may bring chills down the spines of others. I am not a man of the cloth but the a.s. saga has me close to tears and almost on my knees and contemplating looking for the nearest church.
Date: November 23, 2012 at 9:56 AM
Comment: In spite of their youth, these are two mature, professional men. And, being team players, they will compete to perform at their best while letting the Coach dictate who starts.
If one falters, the other will pick him up. Meanwhile, they will support each other and do what's best for the team.
Harbaugh has constantly reinforced this team-first mentality; Randy Moss has even echoed it publicly.
Let "controversy" reign on sports talk radio and in the media; the Niner locker room is united and on a mission (and we all know what that is: Lombardi Trophy #6.)
Jim and Alex drove cars in the SF Giant Victory Parade and want that for themselves. No pettiness or selfishness will be allowed to distract them from their goal, and, just as the Giants did, any adversity will be used to tighten the already-close bonds between all Niners.
Go Kaep, Go Alex, but, most of all, GO NINERS!
Date: November 22, 2012 at 2:03 PM
Comment: I don't know what you guys want. It's obvious to me that the Bears Defense is overrated. They went in with a game plan to protect the back end from Kappy and his designed run plays, daring him to throw on them. Never once did they make the adjustment and cover the Pass better, leaving our Receivers in Man single for much of the game. Meanwhile our Defense is giving Kappy a short field to work with for much of the game. I'm not saying that's the only reason that Kappy won but you all make it sound like he was firing bullets out of his derriere all game long. He threw passes in the dirt too. Held onto the ball too long too. Missed a wide open Receiver by 5 feet too. I like the kid but you people are so hate filled about Smith that you cannot even see that Kappy put together a game that Smith is most certainly capable of. 2 TDs 249 yards is an Alex Smith average this season. Kappy does the same thing you ridicule Smith for and all of a sudden the man is our savior when we don't need a savior. Greg Roman has turned in some real turkey games as far as balance, going away from our strength which is the Run game. Chalk up 2 Losses to that. Was it a good game by Kappy? Yes it was. But c'mon man.
Date: November 22, 2012 at 10:31 AM
Comment: Let me preface this by saying I've been a huge Smith supporter, I want to see him get a ring, I think it would be a huge story of perseverance in the NFL annals, but for all of you complaining about the possibility of Kaepernick starting because of one game, you need to look closer at the plays and throws Kaepernick made on Monday, for me it wasn't so much that he won or threw for the yards he did, he commanded the offense and the game, he was in complete control, he'll have bad games, every QB does, but his ability to make all the throws and command this offense in my opinion is why coach Harbaugh is contemplating this change halfway through the year, as much as I root for Alex, I think this kid is the one who's going to bring Lombardi trophies back to San Francisco.
Date: November 22, 2012 at 7:56 AM
Comment: Jeff, sorry, had to re-post your pulitzer prize winning prose: "But his timid efficiency is more than just soul-drainingly dull. It's also likely a playoff loser, and thus, in the end, a season's waste." Sweet!
Alex Smith rides a race car, Colin drives a race car. I believe CK is the only piece needed to make the 49ers offense "elite".
Date: November 22, 2012 at 1:27 AM
Comment: Good article, Jeff. Agree with some of it, but not all. One thing I don't get is that you say Alex is #2 in the league in yards per throw, but in the second to last paragraph, you say all he throws is eight yard passes. I know you don't mean that literally, but I don't get it. In my humble opinion, I think Alex should start. I trust in his winning percentage and experience until he starts to falter.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 8:19 PM
Comment: Jeff, you write really good. I really enjoy your articles. I actually visit this page in part to see your publications. You are a bit too sentimental though, especially when it comes to Alex Smith. It is like a hate but love the guy enough (or the topics around him) to let go. Alex will not throw for 250 yards a game nor will he go down the field as you like it. That is not his style and after 8 years you have not overcome it. I actually have a couple of predictions too: 1. Alex will get the starting position back as soon as he is cleared to play; 2. Your next article will again be about Alex and the QB situation; and 3. Colin will be our starting QB in 2014. You know about the game, I can see that, and therefore I think you should once in a while write about other things. For instance, why don't you analyze our Special Teams unit and tell us the reasons why they have dropped so dramatically this year; or maybe you could talk about Crabtree and his rise, or Kendall Hunter and the great backup we have at the RB position, or A.J. and his possible progress on the team. For once let the Alex Smith topic rest for a while and delight with a great article on another topic.
By: Terry B.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 4:44 PM
Comment: Ceadderman, I realize you boxed yourself in with the comments you made to AJ's latest column, but it's simply mind-boggling that you could write what you wrote there and now say, "if only Alex had been so lucky to face the Bears defense." Please. Just please. When you say that the receivers haven't been getting as open for Alex, I seriously have to wonder if you have watched the 49ers at all this year. Alex's failure to hit wide open receivers down the field has been a point of contention all year, with Alex supporters saying he's playing it safe, and Alex detractors saying he's not even seeing the open receivers. Say what you want about Alex, but don't say the receivers are not getting open down the field for him. I'd love to hear what Randy Moss thinks about your theory.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 3:33 PM
Comment: Finally a glimmer of hope for the long-suffering 49er fans who were once treated to the high standards of Q.B. play and thrills over the history of the franchise. A lot of teams back east would be happy with a Q.B. like Alex, that's their style not ours. Go there Alex, take your groupies with you. Then everyone will be happy ever after. Give Kap a chance to continue the tradition of Hall of Fame Q.B.s. Best of Luck Alex, you don't fit the S.F. tradition.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 3:21 PM
Comment: Alex is so conservative/safe that we can only run up the score on bad teams. With good teams we can win - but close games. This is a little risky - to play so many close games. Colin gives us the ability to run up the score (at times) on good teams. His ceiling is so much higher. He was phenomenal Monday night. Hitting guys in stride, nearly perfect on his long balls. We desperately need that element when playing good teams. We can play from behind with Colin. Smith is a good QB for playing with a lead.
People worry about Smith's psyche if he gets benched for Colin and we have to go back to him. I don't think so. Smith is one tough kid mentally. He has been through enough in his career to show us that. I don't see that as a worry.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 1:16 PM
Comment: Sorry to say it but either QB would have lit up the bears Monday night! I watched the game 3 times and the whole niner team overmatched them @ every position, especially the O-line. Smith or Kaep would have succeeded in that situation regardless. Yes, Kaep has more skill. He is, however, raw. Raw does not win in January or February and it likely will not win Sunday in NO. Harbaugh needs to walk the tightrope with this one. Yank Alex and he kills the relationship forever! Yank Kaep and ruin his burgeoning confidence. Just like true Niner fans he is hoping the situation takes care of itself. He does not want to ruin the good problem he has of 2 hot QBs. As a great coach once said, keep creative tension. But as happens most often.....if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. I will give you this....I saw a spark in the entire team that I have not seen since 1994!! They are truly the best, most talented team in the league. The time is now!!
By: Lucky Phil
Date: November 21, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Comment: Have a Happy Thankgiving Everybody! And F#$% You Mike Singletary.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Comment: So it's Smith's fault that the play calling was nowhere near balanced, the Line rarely if ever gave him a clean pocket to throw from, and the Receivers weren't getting open as much as they did on Monday Nite?
Hmmm good to know this stuff is all on the QB. They can send Roman and the Line home. Kappy is Kaptain Marvel. We got this! >.>
By: Darrell G
Date: November 21, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Comment: Have to agree this time Jeff. It is what it is. I have not seen the 49ers Offense that efficient and that explosive since 1994. Was it a fluke? Don't think so, but 1 game does not a QB make.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 11:15 AM
Comment: One game... Like the guy, but one game...
By: Terry B.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 10:56 AM
Comment: Well said. You and Diego were as right about Kaepernick as AJ was wrong. Hopefully the Alex homers have finally seen the light.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 10:25 AM
Comment: Couldn't agree more!!! Time for a change now.
By: MIDTOWN TERRACE
Date: November 21, 2012 at 10:02 AM
Comment: Mr Kaplan: you articulate what every SF Native has watched and expected from The San Francisco 49ers: EXPLOSIVE OFFENSE from YA Tittle John Brodie Joe Montana Steve Young to Monday Night.
START COLIN NOW!!!
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:56 AM
Comment: I have been saying this since we drafted Kaep. He needs PT. Now the writing is on the wall. Smith will never see the field again. Hey Kaplan you forgot to mention how cool he was in his first start on MNF. This game was for homefield in the playoffs. It was a pole position game. All these people saying Smith needs to start because its a big game. WRONG, hes rattled and knows hes finished. You put him back in he will crumble. ITS THE RISE OF KID KAEPERNICKIS. The Phoenix has risen from the ashes sent from the heavens appointed by Walsh himself. Rode down to earth on a lightning bolt, born on a football field. To ride off from the curse of qb mediocrity. I couldnt feel more electric and confident about the kid. I know the football minds feel the same!!!
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:41 AM
Comment: The thing I saw Kap do, that Alex doesn't, was apparent on the TD to Crabtree. When one receiver is not open, he went thru the progressions and found another. Smith would have thrown the ball away.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:38 AM
Comment: I agree with everything stated. Do take issue with stating Smith is a loser in the playoffs though. He is 1-1, led one of the most exciting comebacks ever, and then had Brett Swain as his starting WR the next week, cut him a little slack. That said, it is undeniable that Kaep brings a much much higher ceiling to the team's offensive capabilities. Can't wait for next year when we have Jenkins and James flying around the field too.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:32 AM
Comment: Jeff, I just wish you weren't so knee-jerk all the time. Did you see any of that prior to Monday? Did you see that coming? Are you sure it was real or could it have been a product of the situation? Could it be we caught the Bears "Hiberating?" Do you not think the Saints, amongst others, are going to look @ film and see all the Bears did wrong? Are you positive CK can do that on the road in a hostile environment? See these are questions you should ask before jumping in on a piece like the one above. As a lifelong Niner fan, I want nothing more than what I saw on Monday to be real because, truthfully, I had Lombardi Trophies in my eyes, but I'm not going to jump to conclusions and signify that he is "Ready." The sample size is so very small. Prior to this, even as soon back as last weekend he showed none of that. He missed several open receivers and took off after a progression or two. Let's see a couple more performances before crowning him the next big thing, huh? BTW, your Alex hate has never been more on display than in this column. I guess that's the beauty of writing a column on a fan website. You don't have to be the least bit objective.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:24 AM
Comment: Awesome article, nailed it. That's why I want Kap to start against the Saints to have a better gauge if his performance was a 1-time deal because the Bears didn't gameplan against his style of play. The last time I checked A.S. performed well against the Bills and laid an egg the following week. Why? Is it because the Giants had a great plan for Smith & he couldn't get away with it?
Date: November 21, 2012 at 9:11 AM
Comment: This game, on the road, against a very good team, is extremely important as pertains to the playoffs. That said, if Alex Smith is 100% he should start. I have never seen Smith as anything more than an average NFL QB with a great coach and system, but he has deep experience in important games like this one and has beaten the Saints, with an "explosive" performance only months ago. Kaepernick looks like he might be a great QB, but, in this game, going with Smith as starter and Kaepernick ready to come in is the smart move.
That said, I have so much faith in Harbaugh (despite the Giants game) that whatever he decides, I wouldn't second guess.
Date: November 21, 2012 at 8:46 AM
Comment: Great article - I think we've found the future !
Date: November 21, 2012 at 8:36 AM
Comment: Excellent article... very well said.
By: JR San Diego
Date: November 21, 2012 at 8:22 AM
Comment: As a Smith supporter, I still have to agree with you 100%.